Team: Florida State Seminoles
2011 W-L: 9-4 (5-3)
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (19-8; two seasons)
Returning Starters: 17 (9 Offense, 8 Defense)
After what had appeared like ages to ‘Noles fans, 2011 was supposed to be the “return to glory” for a team that at one point finished in the top five for 14 straight seasons. But a 2-3 start derailed it all in a hurry, and once again, we entered wait-and-see mode, a common occurrence over the past decade in Tallahassee. By most standards, the Seminoles were successful in how they rebounded to win seven of their final eight games, en route to a 9-4 overall record last year. However, Florida State doesn’t operate by “most standards.”
Florida State’s overall offensive production (30.9 points per game) may look impressive, but then you see that they only put up 22.7 per game in seven contests against bowl-bound teams. Peering even further into the schedule, you’ll also find that FSU beat just five FBS teams with winning records — the first such win not appearing until October 29 against NC State. But of course, that was last year’s team.
This year’s team faces an even more manageable schedule, and thus, promises to put up even more impressive point totals. The group is also more talented, however, though they’ll be counting on senior QB E.J. Manuel in order to harness all that talent. While he struggled for efficiency at times last year, he still managed to progress into a competent, confident passer; one that threw for 2,666 yards and 18 scores with a 65-percent completion rate. With another year under his belt, and an experienced offensive line in front of him, you’d only figure he’d improve in 2012. But he’ll also need to see more from his receivers. Despite the nice stat sheet for Manuel, he still doesn’t have a true number-one target and instead deals with an inconsistent group of experienced receivers. Sophomore Rashad Greene will likely enter the season as the top receiver, though nothing’s carved in stone. His fellow wide receivers Rodney Smith and Cristian Green are equally likely to push for minutes and catches, making it anything but a clear-cut decision.
Should the passing game get sorted out, there’s a concern about the running game as well, unfortunately. Devonta Freeman returns, and we’ll see if he gets enough carries to generate offense consistently. Last year’s 5.0 yards-per-carry were great, but on only 107 rushes, it didn’t make the necessary dent. Given the aforementioned receiver issues, this area must be shored up to take some pressure off of Manuel and prevent the ‘Noles from devolving into a one-dimensional attack.
The defense, on the other hand, is nothing to worry about. They’ve brought eight starters back, all from a unit that allowed just 15.1 points per game in 2011. And even though this is more of a team defensive approach, emphasizing the group over individual playmakers, they’ve still got plenty of those as well. Two in particular — DE Brandon Jenkins and FS Lamarcus Joyner — are looking to apply their copious amounts of experience in the system to put in another stellar season of work. The one potential for distraction here, cornerback Greg Reid, has been dismissed from the program, and there’s not much left to do but focus on the task at hand. Florida State has one of the country’s most experienced defenses, and the rest of the ACC is keenly aware of it. There’s nothing fun about seeing the fourth-best scoring defense in the country return nearly everybody the next season.
As mentioned above, the defense will be fine, and will do their part to hold opponents to between 15 and 17 points per game again (most likely). The offense, however, can still be the same source of frustration from last season. From reports this offseason, it appears that Manuel’s done everything in his power to improve, both mentally and physically, but will he have any help? There are blue-chip playmakers all over the roster, so I find it hard to believe that one of them — and it doesn’t even have to be a returning starter — can’t step up and lend an assist to the quarterback. Once there’s a formalized order for featured receivers and halfbacks, they can also get more creative with playcalling. Florida State was far too predictable last year, and with their own displayed competence, that too can change.
There are two true hurdles for FSU in 2012: Clemson and Virginia Tech. Should they defeat both, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be 12-0 and right in the thick of the National Championship conversation. Even losing one, they’ll at least get another crack at the ACC title. At this point, for a program that’s now gained a reputation for falling flat amidst high expectations, there’s really no other choice but to go out and win something meaningful.
Prediction: (11-1) (7-1); ACC Champions, Orange Bowl in Miami